Turning on the Lite: The Origins of Miller Lite and Light Beer
The story is more complicated, of course. Miller obtained the recipe for what became Miller Lite through its takeover of the bankrupt Meister Brau brewery in Chicago shortly before the Munich dinner. Meister Brau, in turn, had gotten the recipe from the Rheingold Brewery in Brooklyn, where biochemist Joseph Owades devised a way to isolate an enzyme that could break down higher-calorie starches to make them easier for yeast to gobble up.
What Rheingold dubbed Gablinger’s Diet Beer famously flopped in the late 1960s—no one wanted to drink a diet beer. Curiously, Mister Brau also tried marketing Owades’ recipe as a diet beer called Mister Brau Lite despite Gablinger’s brief history; Mister Brau Lite flopped, too.
Murphy, Miller’s president, knew any reiteration of Mister Brau wasn’t going to work as a diet beer. There had to be another angle. The brewery discontinued Mister Brau Lite and, following Murphy’s Munich epiphany, began retooling the image of not only Miller’s low-calorie offering, but of low-calorie beers in general.
Miller tweaked Owades’ recipe to produce, in the brewery’s words, “a low-calorie brew that tasted like beer,” and, together with its Manhattan advertising firm, McCann Erickson, scrapped everything diet-related. Instead, beginning with test marketing in 1973, they hired ex-pro athletes to tout the beer’s drinkability. Out went Miller’s longtime tag, “The Champagne of Beers.” In came “Great Taste, Less Filling” and “Everything You Always Wanted in a Beer. And Less.”
Miller Lite, launched in those white-label bottles as well as white cans in early 1975, was an immediate smash, propelling Miller into the No. 2 market-share spot behind archrival Anheuser-Busch, which felt compelled to introduce its own light-beer brand, Natural Light, in 1977. (In January, MillerCoors rolled out Miller Lite in the original white cans to a strong commercial reception. The white-label bottles were replaced in the late 1990s and haven’t been seen since. Not only will they return starting in late August, but MillerCoors spokesman Jonathan Stern emailed that “in October, you will see a new look on all Miller Lite packaging that includes a new bottle.”)
Far beyond the impact on the fortunes of its brewery, Miller Lite birthed the light-beer segment as well as spawned a mini-revolution in American food and drink. Suddenly, everything was light—or lite. “The word skittered across hundreds of new product labels (more than 350 in the first half of the eighties),” the New York Times noted in a 2002 obituary for John Murphy. “Light became lite and took on a life of its own.”
It was supremely ironic. Products as varied as pie fillings, barbecue sauce and soda touted their light/lite offerings as lower-calorie alternatives; or, as in the case of Diet Coke, introduced in 1982, simply slapped “diet” in the name. This straightforward approach, by and large, worked—just like it had not worked for light beer.
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.